The Politics of Youth

A generational shift is slowly taking place in the politics of East-Central Europe as the figures responsible for the changes in 1989 are giving way to a younger group of politicians who were not old enough to be politically active at that time. This younger generation of politicians takes membership in the European Union for granted. They have very little invested in the original disagreements that fragmented the opposition movements. And they don’t care so much about some of the defining issues of that generation, such as lustration (the screening of officials for their ties to the Communist-era secret police).

Agnieszka Pomaska is a member of this new generation of politicians. Born in Gdansk in the pivotal year of 1980, she came of political age when Poland had already become a democracy. At the age of 22, after coming up through the ranks of the youth section of what became the Civic Platform party (PO), she was elected to the city council in Gdansk. Since 2009, she has been a member of parliament (the Sejm) with PO, the current ruling party.

In parliament, her focus has been on European affairs. But because of her age, she has also necessarily been drawn into discussions about the state of Polish youth. I asked her what kind of policies Poland could implement to deal with high youth unemployment – over 27 percent in the summer of 2013 and now down to a little over 23 percent – and the serious outflow of Polish young people from the country.

“The answer is not easy,” she told me in an interview at the Sejm in August 2013.  “It’s not only a Polish problem, but a European problem, particularly the unemployment problem among young people. It’s not as bad here as in Spain here, but it’s still a problem. Unemployment is something that we’re concentrating on: we know that jobs are the only thing that can help people decide to come back to Poland. It’s the same as at the city level. The most important thing is to create new jobs. The other thing the present government is focusing on is family policy. We have longer maternity leave — we call it maternity leave but it’s also for fathers. We’ve created new places in kindergartens, which is important for me since I have two small children and I know how it important it is to work and at the same time have kids. If we speak about jobs, one option is to have more flexible jobs.”

How would the newer generation of politicians govern differently from their elders? “We have quite a young representation in parliament, and there are a lot of people my age,” Pomaska told me. “We talk about what will it look like when we, or our young colleagues from other parties, are in power. For instance, we still have this problem with lustration. But one day there will be a time when there aren’t people accused of collaboration with secret service. It won’t be a revolution. It will just be a continuing process. New people come up, and the older ones are not as active any more. It won’t change from one day to the next. When it’s a long process, it’s more difficult to notice.”

Ultimately, she returns to the impact of the EU on Poland and her generation. “Joining the EU really changed our country and our way of thinking,” she concluded. “The first thing is infrastructure. I love looking at pictures of the same place from 2000 and 2014. The changes have been huge. I think Poles are different mentally as well. We are more positive and looking for opportunities. We are more open. We travel a lot. It’s very positive that we can move to look for jobs, even if we travel to other countries. These people still have strong connections to Poland, and maybe one day they will come back.”

 

The Interview

 

How did you become involved in politics?

 

I decided to study political science in Gdansk, my hometown. Then I joined a youth organization of what became Civic Platform, which didn’t exist as a party at that time. But it was soon afterwards in 2001, and then I joined the party. So, the story is very short and very fast. That same year I was involved in the parliamentary elections by working on the campaign of one of our current ministers. A year later, I was elected to the city council in Gdansk. That was 2002.

 

You could have gone on to become a professor after your studies. Why did you decide to go into politics?

 

Sometimes it’s coincidence. Sometimes it’s because you meet people you trust. First of all, I liked politics. I liked to be in touch with people, especially when I was a member of city council. I had contact with citizens. You can change people’s lives at a very local level, and sometimes at other levels as well. You have a chance to change things.

 

Can you give me an example?

 

There was a big project to build a new tramline. It wasn’t a new project, but I decided to remind the mayor of the project. I collected the signatures of citizens. The result was that after a few years, thanks to EU money as well, the tramline now exists. I also worked on some other very basic things like helping people with their accommodation problems. Those are very local problems.

 

When you were elected to city council, I’m guessing, but you were probably the youngest person there.

 

Yes, I was.

 

What was that like?

 

Nowadays, we have many young members. But at that time, I was much younger than the others. I’m also a woman, so it’s a bit different because there are fewer women in politics, especially young ones. At the beginning, it was difficult because I didn’t have much experience. I was completely new. I had to learn everything step by step. On the other hand, I depended on other people. I was very straight in what I was saying and doing, and I think that was helpful.

 

Did young people in Gdansk see you as your representative?

 

Young people are not very much involved in politics in Poland these days. But some of them, yes, saw me that way. I was a member of the youth organization of the party so I worked a lot with young people, especially during the campaigns. But I don’t think that only young people supported me.

 

Did you feel that you represented the concerns of young people? A tramline is for everyone. But were there any projects that addressed the interests of the younger generation?

 

I had some “soft” programs. I established a program that we called “Become a City Counselor.” I invited young people to show them city council. I told them my story, about what it was like to become a city counselor and how important it was for them to think about becoming a counselor, how they could have influence on the city. It wasn’t an infrastructure program, but it helped me be in touch with people. They were very young, younger than 18, and now many of them have families. I’m still in touch with some of them. I think it was very useful for them and for me.

 

A lot of young people have left Poland. Many are in the UK. Young people here have difficulty housing, good jobs. Even many of those with jobs have “trash contracts.” What kind of policies can help young people in Poland today, and specifically what are you doing?

 

The answer is not easy. It’s not only a Polish problem, but a European problem, particularly the unemployment problem among young people. It’s not as bad here as in Spain here, but it’s still a problem. Unemployment is something that we’re concentrating on: we know that jobs are the only thing that can help people decide to come back to Poland. It’s the same as at the city level. The most important thing is to create new jobs.

The other thing the present government is focusing on is family policy. We have longer maternity leave — we call it maternity leave but it’s also for fathers. We’ve created new places in kindergartens, which is important for me since I have two small children and I know how it important it is to work and at the same time have kids. If we speak about jobs, one option is to have more flexible jobs.

However, I don’t focus on this issue in parliament. I work mainly on European issues. Because of that, I can compare what is happening in other countries, and I can suggest different options based on that knowledge.

 

I talked to Wanda Nowicka about introducing parity into the party list of the Palikot Party. What do you think about that as a strategy for bringing more women into politics?

 

I understand that she is proud of it, but this system was not very successful. In the Palikot movement, they only had two women in parliament. We have a different system – either a woman in the first three slots or a woman in the first five slots. To be honest I’m not that into the parity option. I’ve never felt any problems because I’m a woman. Sometimes it was even easier for me to get on the list or in a higher position because I’m a woman. But the prime minister is very much into that. It will probably be a national law to have this system of 50 percent men and women on the list in the national elections.

 

Let me ask you about two other controversial issues here: abortion and in-vitro fertilization. Do you think there will be some kind of compromise on these issues?

 

If we speak about abortion, we did have a compromise some years ago. The problem with the compromise on abortion is that it is still very difficult to have an abortion because there are movements against it and doctors are afraid of doing abortions. So we should concentrate more on education. But we should also support women who really need abortions, because this law is a matter of life or death for them. I would have a more liberal abortion law. On the other hand, I know that it’s very risky. We could go in the other direction in which abortion is completely banned, which I’m really afraid of.

The support for IVF is very high, and for me it’s not really controversial. It’s obvious that women and men want to have kids and sometimes can’t have it the natural way. But IVF has existed for a long time, and we have no regulations. Sometimes I think it’s better to have no regulations than very strict regulations. I’m not sure if compromise is possible in this parliament. It’s a long story but we tried to deal with in the last parliament and couldn’t solve it. But I don’t think it’s a controversial issue.

 

Can you tell me about your goals around your focus, Polish-EU relations?

 

At the moment I’m focused on being the chairman of the committee. Most of the things I do in parliament are because I’m the chairman. We work a lot of time in this committee. The EU is very over-regulated and we have to deal with it. As a committee, we give opinions on EU law, and we also give opinions on the government’s official statements. My other responsibility is to represent the committee outside the country in different meetings with ambassadors and in different forums in Europe.

 

Is there a particular example of a European regulation that is challenging in terms of its impact here in Poland?

 

For example, there is a smoking regulation. Cigarettes are a big business in Poland. I’m not very fond of smoking. I don’t smoke. On other hand, sometimes the EU tries to go too far, and this is the case here. They want to ban the production of certain kinds of cigarettes in Europe, and that works against Polish companies. And the regulation is not very clear.

 

Poland has shifted its attention over the last 10 years from an emphasis on its alliance with the United States — and the alliance continues, of course — to an emphasis on relations with Europe. There were some disappointments in U.S.-Polish relations in terms of the Afghanistan operation, the CIA prison, the visa issue. On the other hand, there’s the European financial crisis. How do you explain this evolution in Polish foreign policy? 

 

I wouldn’t say it’s a contradiction that because we want to become closer to the EU that we can’t have good relations with the United States. We need a balance. With the visa system, I don’t think we care so much any more. We’re in Schengen and we can travel around Europe without special permission. But it’s perhaps more symbolic, and because of that it would be important to resolve the visa issue for us and our relations with the United States.

We are very pro-European as a society. As far as I remember, we are also one of the most pro-American countries. Our feelings haven’t changed. The world is changing, and maybe because of that there seems to be a perception that we concentrate on the EU. The way Poland has changed because of the EU — the transfer of money, the free movement of people — perhaps makes us want to move closer to Europe.

 

In politics, it seems that people here don’t vote for parties but against parties, not for people but against people. Why is that?

 

People say that we complain a lot, so perhaps that’s part of our nature. But when you vote, you are still voting for something, for someone. Maybe they don’t really believe in politics and politicians. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t say that in other European countries it’s different. Bad experiences are more linked to stronger feelings than positive experiences, so perhaps it’s part of our nature.

In the last few days were published some statistics on how many beers are available here in Poland and how many different kinds of food you can buy now compared to a few years ago, and you can see that we are richer and richer. People say that petrol is more expensive, but research shows that people are able to buy more of it. Sometimes it’s good to look at these statistics and see that things are not so bad and we are developing as a country. I think that people, deep down, know that it’s not that bad.

 

People here have a general distrust of political elites — members of parties, of government – as reflected in public opinion polls and in voting participation levels. Some people tell me that that’s mostly true at a national level, but at a local level, trust in local politics is relatively high. What do you think?

 

I think it’s changing. Involvement at the local level is higher and higher. But if you look at turnout in local and national levels, turnout at national level is still higher. What I see in Gdansk, we should work harder to involve people in what we politicians are doing. And that’s easy, of course, at the local level. I think it’s positive that local initiatives are more and more important. It’s changing, and I expect that turnout in the next local elections at the end of next year will be higher.

 

And what about turnout for EU elections, which is traditionally quite low?

 

Yes, and it’s not a big surprise. If you look on the TV every day, European events are not very present, even when we have important meetings at the European level. That might be the only time you can see European politicians or any mention of something like the European commission. But in ordinary life, we don’t have this feeling that European politicians really influence our lives. Maybe that’s the reason.

 

Depending on where I am in the region, countries have a very different self-identification. In Bulgaria, people will say that they’re going to Europe, if they are going to France, suggesting that they are not already living in Europe. There’s also a sign on the trams that say, “Be European and take care of your trash.” As if Europeans take care of trash, and Bulgarians don’t. Here, in Poland, how do people talk about Europe and how do they identify themselves?

 

Being European is not the first identity. If someone is asked if they are European, as European as people in France or UK, they’d say, yes, they feel the same, have the same rights. This is especially true for young people. They don’t see any difference. There’s also some research into this. The main identity for Poles is national, then the regional identity. It depends on the region. The Pomeranian region, where I am from, has the strongest identification. And probably the Slask [Silesian] identity is more important than the national one. I don’t know even young people who would say that they are European first and then Polish.

 

Twenty-three years ago, there was the struggle within Solidarity and between Solidarity and the former Communist party. Those struggles of the past – around the Round Table and the legacy of the Round Table — is that all ancient history for you? Or does it have a political impact on what you do today?

 

In some way, it has influence, maybe because I’m from Gdansk, the city of the Solidarity movement and Lech Walesa. I finished at the same high school as Donald Tusk. The windows of that high school look out on the shipyard. It’s a very historic school. I was always proud that I was from Gdansk. I know all the famous places and some of the people – and they have influenced me.

But I wouldn’t say that I think much about it nowadays. I think more about the future of my generation and those younger than us. History is very important for us. We have the next anniversary on Saturday at the shipyard, and we’ll organize some parties and events. It’s an important past. But it’s still the past. And Solidarity is not one movement any more. You have different former Solidarity politicians on different sides of the scene.

 

The Solidarity generation is still in power — Kaczynski, Tusk. Some say that Poland won’t have another dramatic change until this current generation leaves and a new generation takes over. But others say that the new generation is not really any different. Do you think there will be a difference, and what will that difference be?

 

I’m also very curious about this! I even speak about this with colleagues from my generation. We have quite a young representation in parliament, and there are a lot of people my age. We talk about what will it look like when we, or our young colleagues from other parties, are in power. For instance, we still have this problem with lustration. But one day there will be a time when there aren’t people accused of collaboration with secret service.

It won’t be a revolution. It will just be a continuing process. New people come up, and the older ones are not as active any more. It won’t change from one day to the next. When it’s a long process, it’s more difficult to notice.

 

If you were able to go back to 1990, and you were given the power to change anything in the Balcerowicz program, would you change anything or accept it as it was?

 

I should be an economist to talk about this. I think it’s more about some details that could have been done differently. Of course, it was a revolution, and as in a revolution, some people were successful but for other people it was too difficult to survive, it was a shock. It’s for a longer discussion what could have been changed. Even Leszek Balcerowicz would have changed some things, and he admits it. Right now, we have this discussion about the pension system. So, for sure, there are things that could have been done better.

 

The people who paid the price were the ones who were most involved in the transformation — the workers in the mines, at the shipyard, in the textile industry in Lodz. Many of those places closed or became much smaller, and there was a lot of unemployment. Was that an inevitable irony, or could it have been avoided?

 

Communism cost us a lot. Many people think that the system was good because everyone had the same. But it’s not possible to be equal. Many people used the revolution in a good way and were very successful. We have many success stories. Many companies, often family companies, used this period in a very positive way and were very successful. Of course it’s a problem that not everyone could be successful in living in the new environment and under the new system. But I’m not sure if it could have been different.

 

How much has your worldview changed since the time you first entered politics, and in what way has it changed?

 

Joining the EU really changed our country and our way of thinking. The first thing is infrastructure. I love looking at pictures of the same place from 2000 and 2014. The changes have been huge. I think Poles are different mentally as well. We are more positive and looking for opportunities. We are more open. We travel a lot. It’s very positive that we can move to look for jobs, even if we travel to other countries. These people still have strong connections to Poland, and maybe one day they will come back.

 

What about with you personally and your perspective?

 

My perspective is different of course because I’m in a different place. I was a student, then a local counselor. My perspective was very local. I didn’t expect to be an MP one day, and it happened quite fast. Sometimes I regret that I’m not a member of the city counsel any more. But I’m rather positive about the future of Poland. My knowledge of what’s going on in Poland is greater than it was before.

 

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed from 1989 until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most dissatisfied?

 

Eight.

 

Same period, same scale: your own personal life?

 

Eight.

 

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate Poland’s prospects over the next two or three years, with 1 being most optimistic and 10 most pessimistic?

 

Nine.

 

Warsaw, August 28, 2013

 


2 Comments

  1. see: Poland: The making and unmaking of the news by Howard Besser
    a small pamphlet paperback from 1983 that attempts to show how working situations impact the news posture from the ground up (I would say bottom/up portrayals that favor circumstances.

    In the second half a (more or less top/down) “framing” appears that contours the overall national character in predetermined ways that Howard Besser denies is accurate. In particular his 2nd section titled “Poland in Black and White” critiques the mainstream media use of false dialectics categories that directly impacts events themselves. It is an honest presentation at an interesting time of open transition. I have to wonder, meanwhile, if some of that same opportunism and topcoat brand name frameworks isn’t keeping the more common reality muffled under political gentrification to some degree in the shadow of the EU and International interests?

    • (…apologies for some awkward wording above).
      ———————————————
      Here’s Howard Besser’s webpage:
      http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/

      the essays are at the website:
      Poland, The Making and Un-Making of the News, by Howard Besser & Terry Downs, Berkeley: Anti-Authoritarian Studies, 1983 (including both How Polish Workers Made the News, and Poland in Black and White)

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